As an acquisitions executive, story analyst, and script consultant, I’ve read thousands of scripts. Some are better than others, but over the years, certain trends have emerged.
I’ve worked in the independent presales market for years, representing foreign buyers looking to acquire theatrical films and film packages. They’re not just looking for something that’s commercially viable; they need things that stand out from the crowd. Indie distributors are competing against each other, but they’re also competing against the likes of Disney and Universal. Even being above average isn’t good enough. When I read a script, I’m looking for something great and distinctive. Unfortunately, what crosses my desk is often neither. The same goes for the companies that I read scripts and write coverage for -- they need something unique that will appeal to these buyers.
Most experienced readers and executives can tell the difference between a professional script and an amateur script within three pages.
If you’ve been slaving away at the keyboard for years and you’re wondering how your script measures up, check out these script writing tips I’ve put together and see where your material stands.
The most significant single guideline though is if the script inspires confidence in the reader that it could be the blueprint for a movie so compelling/interesting/popular, that people will be willing to leave their house and shell out 15 bucks to see it.
Script Writing Tip 1: Character Introductions
Great characters tend to have great introductions. Think about Quint in Jaws, or Willy Wonka from the original Charlie and The Chocolate Factory, or Captain Jack Sparrow from the first Pirates of the Carribean movie.
These characters make an entrance that leaves an impression, but they do it in a way that’s entirely within their personality.
It’s an efficient way of telling the audience, “here’s who this person is.”
But it’s not just a matter of having a character walk into a room and do something cool, funny, or unique.
You can distinguish them on the page, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve cracked open a script, and right there on page one when we meet the hero, it says “JOHN, 25, handsome.”
… that’s it?
First of all, it’s Hollywood. Everyone is beautiful. Secondly, I’ve known a lot of dudes named John, none of whom stand out. Thirdly, this description tells me nothing about the actual person.
Although most screenwriting books/gurus/coaches/magic 8-balls/articles will tell you not to use “unfilmables,” your hero or heroine’s intro is a place where it’s ok to break the rules. You can write something like “JOHN, 25, the type of guy who always corrected his high school science teacher about some insignificant detail.” Great, now your reader at least has some sense of who JOHN is.
(This isn’t mandatory. Plenty of great scripts have minimalistic character descriptions and intros. But if you’re trying to stand out, doing something different never hurts.)
Script writing tip 2: Action Beats
Whether you’re writing a slick spy thriller or a gritty slasher, sooner or later your script is going to call for an action sequence (sometimes referred to as a set piece). How are you going to put it on the page?
The elements you want here are clarity and flow. No matter how long your fight scene or car chase is, the reader needs to be able to understand what’s going on at any given time, and it should feel like a movie on the page.
The Enter key is your friend. Break up your action sequences into beats, and give each beat its own line or lines. Just don’t go overboard.
I’ve seen scripts that describe, in painstaking detail, each punch, counterpunch, grapple, and flying kick its characters perform. Calm down Yuen Woo-ping, you’re the writer, not the fight choreographer.
Focus on the beats: Character A gets a few good punches in on Character B, until Character B pulls a knife.
On the flip side, I’ve also seen action sequences that are too vague. If a producer reads “they each jump into their cars, race five times around the block, and screech to a halt in front of a stretch limo,” she’s going to wonder if you know that the sentence you just wrote will cost millions to shoot.
Professional screenwriters know how to find the balance between too much specificity and not enough detail.
If you’re looking for a good role model, James Cameron’s action sequences are always structured effectively on the page. It also helps to watch movies by the set-piece master himself, Steven Spielberg.
Script writing tip 3: Dialogue
One thing that stands out to any reader is how your characters talk. Do they sound like actual people? Writing good movie dialogue is one of the hardest things there is about screenwriting.
You’ve probably read a lot of stuff about subtext, objectives, motivations, unique character voices, etc. And you should always read your dialogue out loud to catch errors or redundancies.
At the end of the day though, what separates an amateur script from a professional script is that the pros write how people actually talk... but better.
Go to a coffee shop or a bar and listen to the conversations around you. They’ll be boring, but you’ll pick up the rhythm. People often repeat themselves or their friends, stop-start their sentences, trail off, or change the subject halfway through.
Sometimes they’ll even make a face instead of using words to convey how they feel. You want to find that rhythm for your characters. Without it, you’ll end up with two stiffs having the blandest conversation of their lives. “How are you, John?” “I am well, Bill. And you?” “I am good. My dog is fine. The weather is nice.”
Or you can cut it. Although you’re not writing a silent film, you’d be surprised how little dialogue some movies have. If you find yourself struggling to convey the scene through dialogue, maybe there’s a way to show it visually.
After all, the movies are talking pictures, not illustrated radio. (I forget who said that, but it’s a great line). Professional scripts rarely have dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward in some way.
This is different from your voice, your characters’ voices, and any stylized elements you’re trying to insert into your film. Juno still has great dialogue, even if nobody has ever said “honest to blog” in real life. The Lobster is going for a specific deadpan sensibility, so Yorgos Lanthimos gets a pass. Those types of films are exceptions. Don’t @ me.
Script writing tip 4: Evocative, Visual Prose
Remember, you’re writing a movie. What is the audience looking at? Can you convey it to a reader in a sentence or two? Can you make it interesting, emotional, dramatic, and visual?
For example, let’s say you had a character who felt betrayed by the people around him. You might write something like “he glares furiously at his compatriots.” Nothing wrong with that. It gets the job done. But could we do better?
Let’s look at another James Cameron example, this time from The Abyss: “Coffey's eyes are straight razors. He slashes them from face to face.” That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it? It’s cool, efficient, and cinematic. Cameron knows what he’s putting onscreen, but he also knows what he’s showing to the reader. Plus, I bet it was fun to write.
It’s important not to get too flowery. Scripts aren’t novels, and you don’t have the word count or space to dive into extended metaphors in your prose.
The next scene in The Abyss does NOT include “Coffey’s on edge, the sharpness in his gaze threatening to slice through any argument like a katana,” because I just made that up and it sounds cheesy AF. You get the idea: all things in moderation.
Script writing tip 5: In Good Hands
I’m going to cheat a little bit here because it’s tough to describe this one. There’s just a feeling you get when you’re reading a script and you know it’s going to be good because the writer is such a confident storyteller.
A writer friend of mine said it’s “like swimming in holy water.” I’d say it’s part pacing, part voice, part aesthetic pleasure.
The only real screenwriting rule that matters is, “could this be a movie?” This is the feeling readers get when they are on page two and the answer is already an emphatic YES.
It’s not just a matter of raw talent; in addition to being skilled, the writer is also experienced. He or she is well versed in filmic language and conventions, in a way that can only come from watching an absolute shit-ton of movies.
“Swimming in holy water” is rare, and there’s no magic bullet for it. I think it’s an instinct that has to be developed. The best way to do that is to watch movies, read scripts, and get real feedback on your work. But if you’re serious about going pro, you’re probably doing that anyway.
Wrapping up the 5 Script Writing Tips
I hope this sheds some light on what readers and executives see on a regular basis, and what your script is up against in the marketplace. It’s worth noting that everyone’s opinion is different. It’s your script, and at the end of the day, so you have to love it.